Conspicuous Consumption

A book with the title of Sweetness and Power suggests a belated attempt to solve the riddle of Samson. The riddle, it will be recalled, ran as follows: “Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness.” For a great British public that has ceased to read its Bible, the answer has for many years been thoughtfully provided by Messrs. Tate and Lyle on their tins of golden syrup. In this measured and intelligent book, however, Sidney Mintz is posing a riddle of his own, which turns out on inspection to be a great deal more interesting than that posed by Samson.

Mintz’s riddle is concerned with the meaning of sugar in the life of the Western world. He starts with one of those pieces of information that tend to make the eyes glaze over when heard at a dinner party: “World sugar production shows the most remarkable upward production curve of any major food on the world market over the course of several centuries, and it is continuing upward still.” So what? we may well ask, as we decide on this occasion to forgo that extra lump in our coffee. Ah, but listen to the facts, replies the dinner party bore as he thrusts the sugar bowl into our hands.

The facts are undeniably impressive, not least because sugar seems to have been a slow starter. Sugar cane was first domesticated in New Guinea around 8000 BC, and in India in the fourth century BC there are literary references to the use of sugar in food preparation. Yet it was only after the eighth century AD that sugar came to be known and consumed in Mediterranean Europe, and it remained virtually unknown in northern Europe for another four centuries after that. Right through the European Middle Ages sugar continued to be a luxury, although cultivation of the sugar cane, introduced by the Arabs, was spreading through the Mediterranean basin. From here it was to be carried across the Atlantic by the Spaniards and the Portuguese (with more help from the Genoese than Dr. Mintz allows) during the great age of overseas discovery.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, large-scale commercial production, based to a great extent on the heavy import of slave labor, developed in Brazil, Spanish America, and the islands of the Caribbean. As production shot up, prices tumbled; and in eighteenth-century Britain (with which Dr. Mintz is almost entirely concerned) a mass market came into being, and a luxury commodity was turned with surprising speed into an everyday necessity. The figures tell their own story. British per capita annual consumption of sugar, estimated at four pounds in 1700, stood at eighteen pounds in 1800. Looking back on the nineteenth century, Lord Boyd Orr argued that the single most important nutritional fact about the British people was their five-fold increase in sugar consumption. The British had become a sweet-toothed people, and where Britain led, the Western world (and not least the United…

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